Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On the Train Again

I was scheduled to leave on the MegaBus from Minneapolis to Chicago on Sunday night. However, upon finding the bus stop, we discovered it had the combined sketchiness of an abandoned warehouse, a secluded parking garage, and an isolated underpass. As a result I decided (with the encouragement of my parents) to spend the night in Minneapolis and take the Empire Builder in the morning. I booked the train and the room while we were at dinner, and in the morning, took a cab to the train station. The cabbie drove me to what appeared to be a light rail stop near the stadium and announced, “this is the train station.” I informed he I needed the Amtrak station, and he told me that it was all right, we’d get there in time, but that everyone knew that this was the train station. If he was so sure, he wouldn’t have announced it (in 4 years taking cabs at college, I never had a driver announce a location when we reached it), and if he wasn’t sure, it would have been nice for him to check. If you got into a cab, at a hotel, in New York, and said, “the airport,” I imagine the driver would ask if you were going to JFK or La Guardia. Anyway, I got on the Builder just as it was departing, and it was a scenic, if dull ride. I got to Chicago with a couple of hours to spare, rather than 13, depriving me of the use of the storage lockers that use finger print scanning technology and had (from my informal study) a success rate of somewhere around 40%. Next I boarded the Capitol Limited, and rode from Chicago to Pittsburgh, the City of Brotherly Discord (just kidding, no disrespect to Pittsburg). From there I caught the Pennsylvanian to Philadelphia, and from there I got on the Amtrak regional. In total it’s about as long as the Southwest Chief, though in this case on 4 different trains. In a way, it’s nice to break it up, though it was tough having to get up and change trains at 5:30 in the morning, and made Tuesday a very long day (more than 18 hours). Still, I made it to my friend's apartment near Harvard Square, safe and sound.

What’s been remarkable is not the differences in different legs of the journey but the consistency along the way (although cocktails went up from $5 to $6 somewhere between Chicago and Philadelphia). Though in many ways the Northeast Regional couldn’t be more different than the Empire Builder, there is a distinct feeling of train-i-ness that connects them. There is a comforting inevitability about a train, on a set track, headed for a location, not to be diverted. It’s comforting it what ever more seems like an uncertain world.

In Chicago, we passed alongside a train that had probably 100 large box cars with small holes, which were filled with cars (automobiles) and trucks. I’m used to seeing those on trailers, not trains. On the train to Philadelphia, we pulled aside for a freight train that had, among other things, about a dozen flat cars with truck trailers on them. These seem like things that previously would have simply be transported by truck before the sharp rise in the price of gas. There’s been discussion of increased ridership on the train, and more funding. The snack car attendant on the Pennsylvanian said he was running out of food. And the New York Times printed a great pro-Amtrak editorial.

That's all for now.

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